The death of the party, came as no surprise…

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One of the great tricks in PR is the hope that no one asks questions – for a number of years, the launch was everything. Brands are now much more fluid, brand equity and brand loyalty isn’t what it once was. It’s not enough to have a strong launch event, your brand is continually re-assessed. In a world in which old reliables such as commercial television, retail stores and iconic businesses are struggling for traction, there’s no such as thing as true brand loyalty. In PR, we battle this all the time, we can’t just rely on people to keep supporting a team in the lean years or letting a client take “time off”. It’s about consumer catalysts, the brand is built one tweet at a time, one moment at a time, and if the brand is toxic, its harder than ever to turn it around. Well, to a point. Even worse than a toxic brand, is a brand no one cares about. Apathy is the true killer…

When Eddie McGuire returned to THAT Footy Show earlier in the year, there was a few central messages. The most notable of them (the ones so enthusiastically lapped up by the devoted nostalgia freaks of the Herald Sun, the ones still thinking commercial TV is important to the lives of Australians) was that Eddie was bringing the “fun” back to football. Whilst you might shudder/embrace exactly what that “fun” might be, the indication was the show would at least stick to football, and go back to its roots – ie, everyone is fair game and spirit of the roast and all that.

Even if the shows “humour” isn’t for everyone, we wouldn’t claim there isn’t an audience for the kind of locker room jocularity so popularised by Triple M. Tidy up the edges of that, and there’s still a market for blokey blokes taking the blokey bloke “piss out of each other!”, it works on Bounce after all – McGuire probably knew the show he wanted, but he hasn’t been able to deliver. The master of live TV hasn’t had a hit show for a while, and so far, this hasn’t been the show to turn his run of outs around…

The other notion so espoused by McGuire was that the players would be the stars – this was central to The Footy Shows success, a mutual partnership with players that made them stars. There was no better way in the day to build a media career than be successful on the Footy Show. Not least because a partnership with McGuire was always richly rewarded in his influential heyday. As footballers became brand conscious, there was no better way to build a long-lasting brand than to be a Footy Show panelist. Look at those in positions of influence in Melbourne football media, and see how many passed through the Footy Show halls. That remains one of its unspoken, unexamined legacies, its lasting influence on media, for better or for worse…

Fast forward to this weeks Footy Show, and both of those boasts have been shown to be hollow – the Footy Show isn’t fun. It’s not even got a nostalgic ratings bounce, losing not just in the ratings to The Front Bar but the equivalent of “Footy Makes You Laugh Out Loud” in its Melbourne heartland. The players aren’t the stars, the notion that some of that McGuire magic would create new media stars is as dated as commercial TV being a dominant force itself. Other than one week in which McGuire spruiked and preened over the debut of Andrew McGrath, they haven’t been able to create a new Hawkins, a new Dunstall, a new Derm.

With one notable exception (to be discussed below) entire shows come and go, without anyone really noticing. McGuire hasn’t even been able to, say, move with the times and become a Kimmel or a Fallon or a Corden type show, creating clips for Youtube that go viral even as the ratings stagnate. Bounce is hardly the epitome of sophisticated modern comedy, but they have segments people can engage with. The Footy show just doesn’t do anything. There’s no reason to tune in. The teams are announced by the time the show airs, unlike the old days, their big interviews are usually scooped, and the show doesn’t even get its obligatory “everyone hates Dave Hughes” column anymore in the Herald Sun…

The notable exception of course, is it’s shows greatest flaw. Sam Newman. The notion that Newman “let off the leash” would be somehow to the shows benefit simply hasn’t come to fruition. Newman is the shows most obvious avenue to mainstream publicity, and to do it he’s decided to shift the show politically to the favourite position of Herald Sun writers, those damned politically correct do gooders are ruining everything. If it wasn’t for them, the Footy Show would be able to have a LAUGH (Newman claimed in dispatches the show was the least politically correct show on TV, since it was an equal opportunity joker, with all that entails). He also pointedly called Heritier Lumumba “Harry” during his talk with Mark Latham. After all, understanding modern sensibilities is not Newmans forte’. This is his chosen position, and now he’s going to run with it, viewers be damned.

On Thursday nights Footy Show – keep in mind the show promised a “fun environment” in which “the players are the stars” – Newman hijacked the show for upwards of 6 minutes to criticise the AFL for putting up the Yes sign, not even conscious of the irony of telling the AFL he wanted people to stick to sports. After all, a simple retort is that people tune into Footy Shows for entertainment, not political diatribes. A fuming Newman is of course one way to get a reaction. And people did, to quote Channel 7, “join in the conversation” about him. This latest rant was on top of a poorly received attack on Bob Murphy, and claiming Australia is “rooted” after the Malcolm Turnbull photo at the SCG was criticised. Wow, doesn’t that show sound like fun! Bringing the fun back to footy! Talking about the game and the big issues!

The Footy Shows best chance of improved ratings was to go back to having fun, to try to tap into the Front Bar motif, maybe load up with past players and play a full nostalgia card, getting Doug Hawkins and Trevor Marmalade, and try and tap into a demand for family fun. Even a simple focus on footy and footy issues and hiring more professional comedy writers to come up with skits and sketches would have worked, to a point. The initial reaction that the Footy Show had “turned a corner” by putting McGuire on a horse and coming up with “Footybox” has completely faded. The show is rating just as did in the supposedly disastrous Hutchy days. Sure, Newman tapping into right-wing pet projects is one way to get attention, and it doesn’t require much thought. Newman “off the leash”, a sobering prospect, is still going to get on the front page of the papers. The old network does have some cachet after all, even if it’s absolutely diminished, and only centred around “old media”….

The other strange choice is the Footy Show haven’t been able to tap into the kind of social goodwill built up during the Shane Crawford charity events – in fairness, the show did enormous good during those two fund-raising events. Recent shows have seen the show fall back onto the kind of simple philanthropy it is used to – footy clubs battling and so on. We touched last time on the contentious Stephanie McMahon tweet about philanthropy being how brands will win – McGuire used to be conscious of the fund-raiser, the big charitable event that benefitted everyone. The sponsors, the cause, the show. Instead, he hasn’t even been able to find a way to connect with that kind of promotion. The show has simply relied on Newman, and more Newman to generate its publicity. It’s almost, dangerously, like McGuire really hasn’t had time or the inclination to come with good ideas. That he thought his return and “Sam being Sam” really would get the nation talking again. That’s just crazy thinking in 2017…

There is a price to pay for relying on Newman for notoriety, and that price, to tie back, is the Footy Show brand. Much as Newman would rail for free speech, if the Footy Show positions itself on the Latham scale of railing against political correctness and “stick to sports!”, it’s brand equity with current players is going to diminish even further. Already, there are current players who want nothing to do with the show. Being a “Footy Show star” isn’t the step to a media career it once was. Player managers and even some clubs are steering their players away from the show. No one wants to be the player squirming uncomfortably when Newman calls Caitlyn Jenner an “it” or gets whoops and cheers when he holds up his ballot paper. It’s simple brand control.

Setting aside Robbo, players are more keen to get involved with 360, having seen the “family motif”, and how Bob Murphy became a star through his involvement. That’s the show that people want to get on, not sat awkwardly while Newman engages in a diatribe in which the players are muted. There’s a reason why Gil Mclachlan can comfortably coast through an hour doing Robbo impressions on the show, or Jack Riewoldt can comfortably sit in his Richmond tracksuit on the show without sponsors worrying. While 360 has its issues (not being stronger on Robbos tweet was a low point) it is far more in tune with the humour and social sensibilities of the modern player than The Footy Show. Plus, Fox Footy is a hell of a networking opportunity. It shouldn’t be under-estimated that in so many ways, the Footy Show is out of time, not just out of touch. It would take a delicate touch to change its ways, but it’s central “star” and “world-class TV talent” (c James Brayshaw) just won’t play ball…

Not only that, but at some point, if Newman does go too far (and it’s hard to think at this point of how awful that would sound) sponsors are going to start dropping off. McGuire was always able to attract sponsors from the top end of town for Collingwood and Channel 9, but pressure on sponsors is always a Twitter campaign away. Taking a political stance, even in the face of claiming to not take a political stance, is going to polarize an audience. Brands are particularly conscious of their relationship with other brands, and, say, the value of a relationship with Nissan doesn’t mean anything near what it once did. Nissan could quite easily move on, since the value of commercial TV advertising is an at an all time low.

The strange thing is, if the show does make a “stick to footy” switch to save its sinking ratings, Newman is absolutely done, since he has very little actual interest in football. Newman has been sour on the game for quite some time, barely knows who the modern players are, tires of its rules and changes. The Footy Show can try to soften Newman’s image through Rita Panahi puff pieces and Bec Maddern interviewing his family, and try and claim Newman is some sort of wonderful man behind all the bluff and bluster and obnoxious social commentary, but it’s falling flat.

The Footy Shows great inoculator to criticism was ratings – the TV equivalent of “give me possessions and I’ll shut up!”. James Brayshaw in his Triple M pomp would quote the radio ratings with monotonous laughter while his crew laughed airlessly and on cue in the background. The Footy Show was the same, they could always fall back on Melbourne ratings. Now that isn’t there, the show has nothing to puff its chest about. McGuire was brought in to fix the ratings, and they’ve got worse.

So the Footy Show faces a difficult time, they can hitch their wagon to Newman and the Herald Sun comments section to diminishing returns, or they can move on and try something different in a last-ditch bid to turn a sinking ship around. When the ratings came out, when the positions of players was taken, when the diatribes net result came out, the only thing anyone could say was this: Sam Newman needs to stick to footy…

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